By Rabbi Natan LEVY, Interfaith and Social Action Consultant, The Board of Deputies.
You should have seen my daughter dance on Simchat Torah! Up high on my shoulders, round and round the Sefer Torah, her little hand would pull me back into the circle of dancing men, should I ever desist from a single round of the grapevine four-step.
Now she is 10, and will only venture into my side of the mechitzah if there are sweets involved. Last Simchat Torah, mid-Hakafot melee, I found her reading a novel under the kiddush table.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” I asked. She gave me the ‘stupid adult look’, pointed past me to the women’s section of the shul and shrugged. So, out of curiousity, I admit gentle reader, I peeked over the mechitzah.
There were women talking, women playing with children, even women learning, but there was not a single woman dancing.
“Why don’t the women dance?” I asked my wife that evening. “With what?” she replied. It struck me then that a lot of the dancing on my side of the mechitzah is less dance than fo- cused movement in relation to the Torah and those who hold it. Without the Torah as lode-stone, the dancing could never be sustained through a fairly monotonous circling and a tune stuck on replay.
This year, my daughter and I decided to scour Edgware for a shul where women might dance with the Torah. “I hear there is a place in Golders Green,” a friend confided. “We are looking for a local synagogue,” I replied, “not a pilgrimage.”
Another woman spoke of a shul in a quasi-mythical past where, for one radical year, the rabbi passed a Sefer Torah over the mechitzah. “What happened the following year?” I asked. “The rabbi refused,” she replied. “He said the Sefer came back smelling like perfume.”
Perhaps many of you are familiar with the rather tenuous Halachic reasoning that keeps my daughter so removed from a Torah scroll. Despite the clear decision of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 88:1) that anyone can touch a Sefer Torah, Rabbi Moshe Isserles notes a peripheral tradition in some Ashkenazi communities that a women would neither attend synagogue, pray, touch a Torah scroll nor even mention God’s name during menstruation.
Never mainstream, by the beginning of the 19th Century, the Chayei Adam noted that even this extreme stance had became less stringent, and menstruating women were welcome to attend shul and pray, although they were still discouraged from looking at or touching a Sefer Torah.
How this duly noted, but marginal, law dealing exclusively with menstruation, became the widespread Halachic reality for all females in Orthodox synagogues in London, sans the few pilgrimage-esque exceptions, is a matter of speculation. And why the current rabbinical leadership is so resistant to the prospect of women touching a Torah, despite the fact the great sages from Rashi to Rambam to Rabbi Karo specifically allow it, is quite possibly a question for the sociologists rather than the adjudicators of Jewish law.
The week-long festival of Succot, which culminates in Simchat Torah, has been imbued with dancing since at least the time of the first Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud (Succot 51b) tell us that men and the women used to mingle so frivously during this festive service in the Temple courtyards that the sages had a women’s gallery carved into the walls of the courtyard to keep them apart.
To renovate the Temple God designed and King Solomon built required a radical Halachic innovation. Surely it would have been simpler to tell the women to stay away during the festivitives? The rabbis never contemplated the idea – joy is something shared.
Yet today, we are so beholden to the edi fice of a marginal and perhaps even misapplied tradition, that we are unwilling to carve out a joyous new opportunity for half the community.
This Simchat Torah, my daughter will again have to settle for a good book and a cozy spot under the tables.
And though I will dance and, perhaps, have the honour of holding a Torah scroll, it will be harder to sing, “God’s Torah is Perfect” (Psalms 19:8) knowing she can only watch us men from the shadows – lest the Torah come back from her side of the mechitzah smelling that bit too fragrant.